Visit our Bookstore
Home | Fiction | Nonfiction | Novels | |
Innisfree Poetry | Enskyment Journal | International | FACEBOOK | Poetry Scams | Stars & Squadrons | Newsletter


Gazing at the Moon

By John Clinbrohf


Click here to send comments

Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques


      My grandfather used to have a ring with a demon trapped inside it. The

ring was silver and had a skull's face, just like the one the Phantom wore

in the Sunday comics. Grandpa said the skull's black eye sockets once held

tiny rubies like drops of blood, but they melted from the heat of the demon

within. Grandpa seldom wore it; usually it sat in an ashtray on the dining

room table, looking very much like an ordinary ring. I couldn't see the

demon. I had to take such things on faith because I had too much of my

grandmother's blood in me.

      Occasionally, during one of the demon's rages, I could press the ring

to my ear and hear a faint ticking, the sound of the demon pounding on its

prison walls. To Grandpa, the sound was like someone pounding on a door, but

all I could hear was this faint ticking like a cricket at the bottom of a

well. I felt hopelessly retarded. Grandma, of course, claimed she heard

nothing at all.

      Sometimes when I got up at night to use the bathroom, I'd pass the

dining room table, and the ring seemed to glow. If I stared at it for a

while, it would seem to move, to squirm like something covered with maggots.

Maybe I would have seen more if I'd kept looking, but I never did. That kind

of stuff scared the shit out of me.

      Grandpa was always consulting with the ring, pestering it with

questions about the weather, and whether it was going to be a good year for

corn, and whether the price of hogs was going to rise any higher. I don't

know why he relied on the ring so much, since it gave him bad advice most

the time. The demon was either malicious or just plain lousy at forecasting

the future. I'm sure the farm would have long since gone under, but Grandma

was the one who really ran things. Grandpa did most the physical work, but

Grandma made all the decisions. They'd fight over what to do, but Grandma

would always win, and Grandpa would go off to sulk with his ring. I'd see

him sitting at the dining room table, holding a filterless Camel between his

right thumb and forefinger (the hay baler got the other three fingers)

asking the ring endless questions and flicking his cigarette into the

ashtray until the demon must have been suffocating beneath cigarette ash.

      When the demon gave Grandpa bad advice, which was nearly every day, he

punished it in a variety of ways. He suspended it on a string over the

toilet and flushed, hoping to terrify it, or he dangled it above a candle

flame. Once he put it in the freezer and gloated for two or three days about

the demon's misery. "Listen to that bastard wail!" he'd say, "That'll teach

him about the feeder cattle market!"

      The demon nearly escaped when Grandpa tried to punish it by burying it

in the back yard. When he went out to dig it up the next morning, he found

it had sunk straight down towards Hell. Fortunately, the ring left a

scorched trail in the earth, and by following this Grandpa was able to

locate it after several hours of furious digging. Enraged, Grandpa ran into

the house and threw the ring into the microwave. This was a mistake. The

demon absorbed all the microwave radiation and the the ring grew to three

times its previous size, fusing every circuit in the microwave and scorching

the whole northeast wall of the kitchen, not to mention igniting the


      "My kitchen!" Grandma shrieked as she yanked the fire extinguisher

from the wall and sprayed the curtains. "My kitchen!" she screamed again,

hitting Grandpa in the chest. But Grandpa, for once, looked truly

remorseful. He stood with his head down. I think for that one second he saw

what Grandma had had to put up with for years, living with a man who

consulted with a demon on a daily basis.

      That was the summer I was eleven. By the next summer, Grandpa had

changed. He began to be subject to the pull of the moon, as old people often



* * *


      I'm not sure if it was somehow related to the microwave incident, but

that fall and winter Grandpa began to lose interest in everything, including

the enlarged ring. It sat unmolested in its ashtray throughout the winter

months as Grandpa sunk deep into depression. He lost all interest in the

farm, too. Grandma, who couldn't handle all the chores he suddenly was

neglecting, began selling off all the livestock. Grandpa never uttered a

word of protest. That scared Grandma. She started taking him around to

doctors, first the family doctor in Elnora, then specialists in Terre Haute

and Indianapolis. Our medicine cabinet began to fill up with various drugs

which seemed to have no effect on Grandpa at all, except for some carotene

pills which turned his skin orange for several days, making him look like a

vacant, white-haired carrot. Nothing helped, and by spring he had become

completely preoccupied with the moon.

      Full moons were especially bad, but Grandpa was fascinated by the moon

even when it was just a sliver. He would sit in a rocking chair in the front

yard, gazing at the moon as it rose in the southeast and following it across

the sky until it set in the southwest. If we tried to make him go inside, he

would throw horrible tantrums, kicking and biting. We were afraid he'd hurt

himself, so we let him be.

      I began sitting out there with him, trying to see what was so

captivating about the moon. If I gazed at it for about ten minutes, not

letting my eyes waver even a fraction, the moon would become brighter. At

the same time, the sky became blacker, the stars fading from my peripheral

vision until the moon was the only thing in the sky. I began to sense the

roundness of it--it began to look like a globe rather than a disk. It pulsed

with my heartbeat, and if I managed to keep staring for an hour or so, it

would slowly expand until it filled half the sky. It was very difficult, but

with practice I became better at it until one night I gazed from moonrise to

moonset. It became bigger than ever, filling the whole sky, and still it

expanded until I could see details on the surface, and suddenly gazing at

the moon was no longer difficult at all; I couldn't do anything but gaze at

it. I saw more and more detail. Oceans and continents first, then stark

mountains, black lakes, and ashen cities.

      A city completely filled my vision, and I could clearly see each

building and street. Then I saw people. They all had their heads down and

were ceaselessly pacing the streets. They were the color of talc, and were

repulsively thin, their heads nodding heavily on their fragile necks. They

looked like dying lilies. Something about them and their decaying city made

me feel a familiar sadness, a faint echo of the grief I'd felt when I saw my

mother and father in their twin caskets.

      One of them raised his eyes and saw me. His pupils were red instead of

black, his face white and hollow-cheeked. He offered me his hand. I tried to

reach him, and I felt myself slowly drawing closer until our fingers nearly

touched. A smile wrinkled his dry lips, revealing bright little teeth that

were as sharp as needles. But then something got in the way. A shadow passed

between us, and I fell away. The moon was setting, just a sliver of it

showing above the Kelso woods. I was overwhelmed by the odd sensation of

being back inside myself--there was something revolting about it. Nearby

there was an old man on his hands and knees, moaning and rocking, and it

took me a while to remember who he was or why he was crying.


* * *


      After that experience, I lost all curiosity about the moon. As a

matter of fact, I stayed inside as much as possible when the moon was out.

And if Grandma insisted I go out to sit awhile with Grandpa, I first put a

hat on, pulling the brim down over my eyes, and I kept my hands on either

side of my face like blinders. I also stayed away from the dining room as

much as possible because lately it seemed I could hear faint laughter, just

a snickering whisper, whenever I walked past Grandpa's ring.

      It was also about this time that I developed my compulsion to tap on

things to make sure they existed. I drummed on tabletops and walls with my

fingers, which wasn't really that unusual, but I was especially insecure

about the ground or floor beneath my feet, and was always having to lean

down to touch it. I still can't walk out of a house without leaning down to

touch the earth. Otherwise, how do I know I'm not stepping out onto nothing?

      As for Grandpa, his condition steadily worsened. He became completely

withdrawn, never talking to us or answering our questions, but only mumbling

to himself from time to time. He lost weight, and this made him more subject

to the pull of the moon than ever before. Grandma was afraid for him to be

outside on windy nights because the slightest breeze threatened to knock him

over. One morning I found him asleep in his chair in the front yard, and

when I tried to wake him up, I was astonished to see I could lift him

easily. He was ridiculously light--even his shirt and shoes should have

weighed more than what I was holding. I let go of him, and for a second he

didn't even fall. It was as though he couldn't decide whether to sink or

rise or just hover there. Then he very slowly drifted toward the ground. I

took him by his shirtfront and carried him inside like a weightless


      A short time later we almost lost Grandpa. I was on my way to bed when

I heard Grandma scream. I ran outside to see her jumping up in the air,

making a grab for Grandpa's feet, which were already far out of reach. He

was very slowly rising, drifting off a little to the northeast because of

the night breeze. He stood on the air just as casually as most people stand

on the ground, his hands in his pockets, his eyes fixed steadfastly on the


      It looked hopeless, but Grandma, the most practical person I've ever

known, was a quick thinker. She sent me running to the shed for a

stepladder. We positioned it beneath Grandpa, and I started to climb up, but

Grandma pulled me back. "You hold it steady, Billy," she said, and clambered

up to stand precariously balanced on the top step. It was a ten foot ladder,

but it wasn't quite enough. Grandpa had drifted far enough to the northeast

to just barely be out of reach. Then she jumped. For about two seconds I was

sure she was jumping to her death, but she caught Grandpa by the ankles, and

that's what saved her. The pull of the moon was so strong that even

Grandma's earthy weight wasn't enough to bring them down at first. They

hovered overhead for a minute, drifting toward the house because of the

momentum provided by Grandma's leap. Then they began to settle toward the

ground, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until Grandma dropped like

a rock the last foot or so. I helped her pull Grandpa the rest the way down,

and we took him inside


* * *


      It became very bad. Grandpa didn't talk or eat but only lay in bed all

day staring at the ceiling. Grandma agonized over whether to take him to a

doctor, but she knew they couldn't help him, that they'd only put him in the

hospital to die. He rapidly lost weight. Grandma could sometimes coax him to

eat a little bit of applesauce or mashed potatoes, but in the end she had to

feed him with a baby bottle. And he kept getting smaller.

      We had a real problem keeping him from floating around the room and

bumping into things. For a while we were able to keep him in bed by

carefully covering him with a sheet and tucking it under the mattress. This

worked fine at first, but then Grandpa, as he became more and more

insubstantial, began to lose all physical existence. He was slippery to hold

onto--your hands kept going right through him--and if you covered him with a

sheet, he'd slowly emerge from it like a dead fish floating to the surface

of a pond. We had to just let him float around the room like a lost balloon.

For the time being the walls held him, but I think he would have escaped

soon after if Grandma hadn't accidentally discovered a way to hold him down.

      In her desperation, Grandma overcame her distaste for the demon ring

and brought it upstairs in an attempt to get Grandpa's attention. She held

him (by this time he was less than two feet long) and shook the ring in

front of his eyes as though trying to amuse a baby with a rattle. Grandpa

showed no interest. Grandma tried to put the ring in his tiny hand.

Suddenly, Grandpa acquired a pound or two of weight, surprising Grandma so

much that she nearly dropped him. The ring rolled onto the floor, and

Grandpa became weightless again.

      Grandma got her first real sleep in weeks that night. She slipped the

enlarged ring on Grandpa's wrist like a bracelet, and the next morning when

she awoke he was still on the bed beside her. He even looked as though he'd

acquired a bit more solidity. Over the next few days Grandpa continued to

improve, but we were only a week away from a full moon, and as the time drew

nearer, he became lighter again despite the ring.

      The night of the full moon, he began to float again. The hand with the

ring was weighted down to the bed, but the rest of Grandpa's body floated

above it, straining to pull the ring across the room toward where the moon

was rising. The curtains were closed, but we knew it was out there, its dull

light drowning everything. We took turns holding him, waiting for moonset.

He had become slippery again, and as the moon's pull became stronger, we had

more and more difficulty keeping him in our hands. The ring was solid as

ever, but if we held onto it, Grandpa's hand would start to slip free, and

we had to try to catch him again. It was like trying to hold onto a ghost,

and I guess that was pretty much what we were doing.

     Sometime after midnight, he escaped Grandma's hands and flew through

the window. Grandpa left no mark, but the ring burned a perfect round hole

through both the curtain and the windowpane. Grandma looked out the window

and sent me running for the stepladder again. Grandpa was in the apple tree

in the front yard. The ring had wedged in the fork between two branches, and

it was the only thing holding him back.

      I held the stepladder again for Grandma. She stepped onto the

sturdiest branch of the apple tree and worked her way along it until she was

beneath Grandpa, but as always he was just barely out of reach, and just

then his hand slipped free of the ring. Grandma let out a cry of rage and

frustration that turned into a wail as she saw Grandpa drifting, rising

faster and faster, out of reach.

      The ring fell, bouncing off tree branches, and I put my hand up and

caught it, just like that. It was really more as if it leaped into my hand

where it nestled like a dead thing filled with burning maggots. I looked

down to see it staring back at me with red blazing eyes, and for the first

time I heard it plainly, shrieking and laughing as though it were

simultaneously overcome with both anguish and mirth. I threw it away from

me, out into the cornfield beside our house, where I am sure it plunged

straight down to Hell.

      I realized that I'd forgotten to touch the ground when I came outside,

and now I hunched down to do so. I covered my eyes to protect them from the

moonlight and waited for my weeping grandmother to come down from the tree.